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Comprehensive Justice from a Feminist Perspective

Joumana Seif: Human rights lawyer & Syrian feminist activist.

Justice stands as a cornerstone of ethical values across all domains: law, politics and society. Within the Syrian context, justice topped the list of demands during the Syrian revolution, alongside freedom and dignity. This was in response to the regime's excessive repression and severe human rights violations against civilians, aimed at quelling the revolution.

The notion of justice encompasses multiple definitions, each resonating differently with different groups. However, they all converge on the principle of fairness. It is a mission for all. Therefore, justice, in its broad sense, signifies providing victims with avenues for redress, while acknowledging their dignity and compensating them. Simultaneously, in order to prevent recurrence, it involves holding perpetrators accountable and preventing impunity. Moreover, as an essential precondition for peacebuilding, justice must be all-inclusive, leaving no one marginalised and avoiding any form of discrimination.

Historically, numerous cases of litigation under international law have demonstrated biased accountability and justice practices that failed to acknowledge victims' circumstances, priorities and harm endured, thus leaving their needs unaddressed and unattended. For instance, sexual violence during conflicts has been normalised as an inevitable outcome of war, or dismissed as shameful personal wrongdoings that need not be prioritised in accountability proceedings. Similarly, varying gendered impacts of several crimes, which can be exceptionally devastating for women and children, such as enforced disappearances, forced displacement and looting, have often remained unnoticed or excluded from accountability measures.

Consequently, from my perspective, what needs to be embraced and pursued in present-day Syria is comprehensive justice from a feminist perspective. So, what does this justice entail?

Comprehensive justice from a feminist perspective is an approach that focuses on victims—all victims. It places special emphasis on integrating gender analysis into investigations and criminal accountability for all international crimes committed against the Syrian people. This approach aims to unveil the motives behind these crimes and the distinct harms based on gender, especially concerning women and children. Given that such impacts often remain unseen or excluded from accountability and treatment measures, this approach pays specific attention to the interests and circumstances of victims/survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, individuals who have long been obstructed by barriers from accessing justice and redress.

When investigating sexual violence crimes, it is imperative to expand the scope of focus and situate these crimes within their broader societal context. These crimes are not isolated from the entrenched violence and discrimination inherent in society. Therefore, it's impossible to thoroughly investigate and determine the full extent of the harm inflicted upon both the victims and the entire community without understanding the broader context, uncovering the structures of oppression and their roots and grasping the power dynamics within society.

We all know that since 2011, the regime has systematically and extensively employed sexual violence, especially against women and girls, with the purpose of deepening the humiliation and fragmentation of the community. Women's bodies were weaponised in this strategy of war, serving as tools to convey messages of dominance, power and revenge. The regime was fully aware of the consequences of its actions and exploited the prevailing male-centric mindset that linked family and societal honour to women's bodies. Being fully aware of the societal stigmatization, rejection and abandonment that women survivors would face due to the preconceived notion that they had been subjected to rape, the regime arrested women activists and participants in the revolution, as well as the wives, daughters and sisters of men rebelling against it, as a form of retaliation. Doing this, the regime has ultimately succeeded in fracturing and weakening the community over the long term.

However, the issue extends beyond sexual violence crimes, which are just a fragment of what Syrian men and women have endured. There are numerous other international crimes committed on the basis of gender, causing varied forms of harm and consequences, particularly affecting women, children and individuals of diverse gender identities. Such crimes, for example, include:

Arrest and Torture:

The Assad regime systematically arrested women at checkpoints as leverage against the male members of their families. Women endured severe torture and inhumane treatment solely because they were wives, sisters or mothers of wanted men. Even children and young girls were not spared from this crime. Upon release from detention, women and girls often face stigmatisation and a series of violence that can escalate to murder. Multiple reports have indicated that individuals with diverse gender identities have also been subjected to retaliatory torture and inhumane treatment because they are different.

Enforced Disappearance:

Enforced disappearance has gendered consequences that particularly impact women. Besides enduring the agony of waiting, mothers, wives, sisters and children bear the immediate repercussions of enforced disappearance. Women, in addition to assuming the duties of looking after children and protecting other family members, often lead the efforts to uncover the truth, trying to reveal the fate of their loved ones. In this pursuit, they are exposed to several dangers, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, sexual assaults, financial and sexual extortion and other forms of violence.

Forced Displacement:

Tens of thousands of Syrian women and their families have been subjected to forced displacement, often to unsafe locations within Syria. In the absence of community networks, loved ones, homes, jobs, social and political roles, many women continue to endure extremely challenging conditions, lacking psychological, health, economic, legal and educational support. In addition, they face ongoing threats and violence from controlling forces, which view any women's activity or attempt to improve their conditions as a deviation from societal norms and an attempt to "undermine morals and religion" or to imitate the West, thus requiring control and punishment.

For the majority of forcibly displaced women, returning to their homes is an uphill battle. Many of them are wanted by the Syrian regime, making their arrest highly likely. Additionally, most have lost their homes due to bombing or confiscation. Many of them cannot prove property ownership. For example, it is nearly impossible to claim the inheritance from a deceased husband as obtaining a death certificate is difficult when the fate of the missing person remains unknown in these circumstances.

As a feminist human rights advocate, I've been engaged for years in the investigation of international crimes and accountability. Alongside my colleagues at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), our approach to investigating international crimes committed in Syria centres on holding perpetrators accountable and seeking justice for the victims. Through partnerships with Syrian organizations and by supporting brave women and men survivors, we've succeeded in securing recognition for acts of torture, murder and sexual violence as crimes against humanity. This milestone was achieved through the verdict issued in the momentous Al-Khatib trial in the German city of Koblenz, which has laid a robust foundation for expanding and activating efforts for justice across other European countries.

Moreover, owing to the collective efforts of Syrian feminist organizations, we've successfully initiated legal proceedings before the German prosecutor to investigate sexual violence crimes perpetrated in five detention facilities under the control of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence. These ongoing investigations have led to the inclusion of Bashar al-Assad's name on the European sanctions list as of last March 8th. Alongside several officers from the Republican Guard, Al-Assad has been held responsible for sexual violence and gender-based crimes.

Today, I can confidently assert that the pursuit of justice and accountability holds a potent presence on the international agenda. Legal and judicial endeavours are intensifying, whether through United Nations bodies and institutions, such as the case filed before the International Court of Justice by the Netherlands and Canada, or through national courts in Europe and the United States, all aimed at cornering the Syrian regime and holding it accountable. These efforts also negate any attempts at normalisation with the regime, recognising them as blatant violations of human rights and humanitarian values.

To say that justice often comes too little, too late for the victims is nothing novel; nonetheless, it remains a genuine justice built upon rights that cannot be compromised by any means. It is our duty to relentlessly and persistently pursue this justice, no matter how long it takes. In our investigative and accountability efforts, it is imperative to broaden the scope of focus and utilise the gender analytical lens, which enhances the prospects of comprehensive justice that spares no one—a goal we must all collectively strive for.

Joumana Seif : Human rights lawyer & Syrian feminist activist.



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